Monthly Archives: January 2014


EMPHASIS or DOMINANCE is the stressing of a particular element to make it more interesting or important. It is related to focal point or center of interest. It must be noted that the center of interest is seldom in the center unless radial or formal balance is being used. Emphasis is achieved through size, shape, position, color, or texture.

BALANCE is the distribution of physical properties to suggest stability. There are three forms of balance: a. Formal or symmetrical, b. Informal or asymmetrical, c. Radial

RHYTHM is the flow of movement within a composition. In a painting, there must be a way for the eye to move in and around a picture. Consequently, we don’t want elements that go off the margin unless they are led back in by another line or shape close by. Rhythm also refers to the suggestion of movement within the composition, such as waves in an angry sea.  Rhythm is achieved by:  a. Repetition, b. Recession into the background or advancement into the foreground, c. Continuance of seeing lines beyond their limits (lost and found edges).

PATTERN is sometimes considered to be a principle of design and is created by: a. Repetition of motifs and elements, b. Consistent spacing of motifs, c. Overall coverage of surfaces with similar units, d. Random or accidental arrangements of elements.

Although these principles are presented here individually, you must remember that the principles work TOGETHER to ensure good design in an artwork.

From Suffering



The following is a more in-depth look at the basic principles of design.

UNITY is the banding together of all elements by organization and balance for total effect.  It is reached when all elements work together harmoniously.  Technique and material are important here.  Consider Van Gogh’s unity — his brush strokes and the emotion underlying it all.  His use of the brush brings the whole composition into one. The subject matter of a painting may also give unity. In some cases, the background color may pull it all together.  Unity really means ONE IDEA.

 HARMONY is related to unity, but is not synonymous with it. Harmony is a combination of units similar in one or more respects. Types of harmony include: 

    a.  Harmony of function: dissimilar objects that are commonly associated, as a bottle and a cork.

    b.  Harmony of literary association: symbolism as the dove and the olive branch.

    c.  Harmony of similar shapes, colors, lines, or textures

(to be continued)




To continue the discussion of design principles, we turn to RHYTHM.  We can understand the use of rhythm in dance and music,but it is also important in the visual arts.  And it is common to human nature.  All we have to do is look around us to discover the RHYTHM in nature. The cycles of the seasons — the growth, production, death, and rebirth of the land is familiar to each of us.  Even the simplest one-celled organism has a rhythmic pattern that relates it to the complex world outside. Man’s own internal system demonstrates the rhythm of life. Music and the dance began with the simple rhythms of primitive man, as he beat patterns on animal skin drums and stamped out the rhythm with his feet.

These five basic principles of design (UNITY,  VARIETY, DOMINANCE,  BALANCE, AND RHYTHM) work together to form aesthetic wholes in any form of art: dance, drama, literature, music, or the visual arts. The major difference between art forms is the matter of timing. The musician and the writer can manipulate an audience over a period of minutes or hours, attracting our attention, building up suspense to a climax, and unfolding the denouement to our enthralled eyes or ears. The visual artist, however, places his entire composition before the eyes of the viewer all at one, and it is the knowledge and experience of the viewer that determines how much he gleans from it.  no one would leave a play in progress, but many walk by a painting with just a cursory glance. A work of visual art deserves the time and study necessary to discover the artist’s design – his plan of arrangement to achieve his total effect.

More on design principles later.


In any field of art, the first thing for the artist is his idea, or subject matter. After this comes the composition of his ideas to best achieve the effect wanted.  To do his planning, the artist must be aware of certain principles or rules to be followed. No matter if the field is visual art, dance, music, literature, or drama; we still see the same principles at work.  These are not considered to be rules arbitrarily made up by a teacher – they are basic to the human condition. An understanding of these principles is inherent in good art, whether you are an observer or a doer.

For example, it is a psychological truth in human nature that all men feel a “rage for order” – the need to control his situation and bring unity to his existence. We all strive for order – we organize into families, into clubs, companies, societies, and nations so that we can be stronger.  “United we stand, divided we fall.”  This is called UNITY.

However, UNITY can become boring at times.  We need some VARIETY to avoid monotony.  This often leads to CONFLICT.  Biological psychological, and emotional needs trigger competition between individuals, and between parts of an individual.  Life is full of conflict, and it must be resolved, or it leads to the breakdown of the individual or the society. “A man cannot serve two masters.” But CONFLICT can be constructive — it leads to growth and maturity. Every story or play must have a conflict that leads to a solution; otherwise we lose interest in it.

DOMINANCE resolves the CONFLICT.  One of the opposing forces becomes stronger than the other and takes over the situation; or a decision is made that leads to a solution. DOMINANCE, or EMPHASIS, restores UNITY until the cycle is again broken.  In a play or story, the solution is often called the denouement.

Although these are the most important principles of design, there are two others that are also basic to nature:  BALANCE and RHYTHM.  BALANCE, or stability, is indispensable to human life. For every breath we inhale, we must exhale as well. Our days of work must be balanced by nights of rest. Disease is an upset of balance, either by germs or the action of our environment. Proper medication or living style will restore the balance. In nature the rough bark of a tree is balanced by the smoothness of its leaves, and sometimes the smallest flowers have the strongest fragrance, while bright, showy flowers have no noticeable scent. This too is BALANCE.



Here are some more ideas from my list — ideas for compositions that I haven’t tried.   They are mostly ideas for drawing subjects.  The majority of these ideas came from the book by Bert Dodson:  KEYS TO DRAWING WITH IMAGINATION.  This is a great book to have in your collection.  I got it from North Light books, and I recommend it highly.  These are all things I wanted to try at some point or another, and I think I will pretty soon.  I’ll share when I do, but please let me know if you try some of them!

1.  Draw a sequence of views from outdoors to indoors or reverse. Eliminate unessential detail. Select views that make a strong transition from wide open space to middle ground to closeup space.

2.  Photograph an object from multiple perspectives in black and white. Vary the scale and perspective. Make a collage in an interesting composition. Translate this into a drawing and extend random distortions. Put the collage away before finishing the drawing.

3.  Observe a rocky subject and make several sketches. Pay attention to the type of stroke used. Now, redraw to achieve a more dramatic result. Try upside down, mirror images, a bigger tool, changing the metaphor such as cracked open nuts, or pebbles.

4.  Use a tree trunk or its branches as a subject.  Emphasize the character of the stroke in several sketches. Then do a spin -off that further emphasizes and strengthens the pattern.

5.  Take one of your previous drawings and redraw it in rhythmic lines. Don’t use outlines.  let curving parallels describe form by bending around them. Lines should converge near the edges and widen in central areas to create a 3D effect.




These are basically warm-up exercises for an art class.  I’ve done these in several classes that I have taught — teenagers and adults both.  Sorry that I never took a photo of one, however.

1.  Hang a humongous piece of brown wrapping paper or other cheap paper on the wall where your students enter.  Have markers, pens, pencils, colored pencils, or crayons handy nearby. As each student enters, he/she will doodle or draw something on the paper each day either in color or black and white.  At the end of the 9 weeks semester, the teacher will bring all the drawings together by painting a single color over all.

2. Here’s another warm-up exercise  for your students:  Distribute 6×9″ pieces of drawing paper and pencils and/or markers.  Give them some action words taken from a thesaurus.  They only have one minute to communicate the concept — share afterwards.  This is a spontaneous and non-cerebral activity.

3.  Have the students make a list of 10 things they like and 10 things they hate.  Have them select one of each and do a non-objective representation of their feelings, choosing medium, hues, and values.



These are some creative ideas I’ve collected over the years, but never tried myself.  So, unfortunately, I don’t have images to show you.  However, I’m sure with your own creative juices flowing now that we’re in a New Year, you will want to try a few of these.  Please let me know which ones you like!  In posts to come, I’ll add to this list.

1.  Set a still life in the middle of a landscape, as per Wallace Steven’s poem “I Set a Jar in Tennessee.”  Make it believable.

2.  On a large sheet of paper, make a whole object and several detail studies to understand unique characteristics of the object — compose with a visual flow — flower, gourd, skull, seed pods, corn husk, etc.

3.  Hang fabrics from a clothesline connecting some together and letting some drape on the floor. Turn on a spotlight and turn off overhead lights. Draw the shadows on the floor as well as other forms.  Use a viewfinder, and draw only what you see.

4.  Make a viewfinder with 1:4 or 1:5 relationship.  Look at your world through this – both vertically and horizontally. What subject would seem most appropriate in this way?

5.  Tell a story in 4-5 consecutive views.  Use the medium of your choice.





Mirrored Corn Plants

This is an idea from one of Selma Blackburn’s watercolor classes.  We were told to make reverse images of an object on a large sheet of watercolor paper — where the images meet in the center will most likely turn out to be the center of interest (breaking one of the principles of composition)!  There is a lot of movement in this composition, and the direction of the cast shadows in the lower left and right corners lead the eye toward the center of the painting.  This was a fun painting! If you notice, the warm hues predominate.  There are also lots of negative shapes in the composition, adding to the fun of painting it.